One of the greatest ongoing changes in space exploration is the introduction of commercial methods in the field. Commercial launchers like RocketLab and SpaceX have fundamentally changed the way the industry does business. Now the researchers are applying their “Move Fast and Break Things” approach to another part of the industry – the actual mission design.
One of three missions that attempt to reduce the cost of launching a mission by a factor of ten is led by researchers from UC Berkeley. Known as Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE), the mission will consist of twin satellites known as “Blue” and “Gold” after the colors of UC Berkeley. Your main job will be to monitor Mars, look for its atmosphere and how the planet is affected by the solar wind. One of the most fascinating things about the project is that it should only cost about $ 80 million from launch to data collection in Mars orbit.
Visualization of the focus of ESCAPADE science. Hot ionized plasma (green and yellow) and magnetic fields (blue lines).
Credit – UC Berkeley & Robert Lillis
Various factors enable such a dramatic drop in price from the $ 800 million that such a mission would normally cost using traditional satellite development methods. A great cost saving is the high risk tolerance. Dr. Robert Lillis, deputy director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley, puts it plaintively: “Instead of spending $ 800 million on a 95 percent chance of success, can we spend $ 80 million on an 80 percent chance?”
Such risk tolerance has been rare in the space industry in the past. Still, adoption has slowly increased as SpaceX and its competitors literally blow through prototype rocket on a regular basis. One of these competitors is RocketLab, which has started working with the ESCAPADE team to further develop the program.
Rocket Lab’s prototype electron rocket launches from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.
Photo credit: rocketlabusa.com
All this different thinking has already caused some problems in the development of ESCAPADE, even up to this point. NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program funded previous work on the project. It had already received $ 8.3 million in funding to start preliminary development. Its original launch partner (Psyche) was moved to another launcher, so there was no room for ESCAPADE.
This is where RocketLab came in. Its Photon launch platform can send the satellites into a different orbit than originally intended, but it’s still the right type of orbit to help achieve its mission objectives. The mission instruments also had to be adapted to the new launcher, but still perform the same general functions.
UT video about the atmosphere of Mars.
However, it will take some time before the final drafts are ready. There are currently plans to launch Blue and Gold on a photon in 2024, with the data coming back from the satellites starting in 2026. That’s still a much longer time than the rapid prototype development cycles in Silicon Valley or Shenzhen, but it also takes time to explain how massive the solar system really is.
UC Berkeley – “Blue” and “Gold” satellites will fly to Mars in 2024
NASA – NASA ESCAPADE mission – Mars twin orbiter – moving towards takeoff
RocketLab – Rocket Lab spacecraft for Mars confirmed as NASA gives the green light for the small satellite interplanetary mission ESCAPADE
DailyCal.com – NASA Approves Key Funding for UC Berkeley Satellite Mission to Mars
Artist’s impression of the ESCAPADE satellite.
Credit – Rocket Lab